In India, OSI's Vista Processed Foods Sets Innovative Water Conservation Example
Water conservation is a growing concern across industries and around the world. Warming temperatures and the needs of an even-expanding global population are straining the finite resource, and putting this issue on the radar of governments, businesses and the wider public. While some areas of the world are just now beginning to grapple with the specter of actual or possible water shortages, OSI's Vista Processed Foods in India has been dealing with — and therefore innovating solutions to — this issue for years.
Vista opened its first of three plants about 15 years ago on the outskirts of Mumbai, one of the largest metropolises in the world. Demands of the estimated 20 million people in the region, as well as businesses and other entities, were too much for the local water system to bear. At the end of each summer, the flow of water into Vista's Taloja plant would slow to a trickle and eventually stop.
"We used to shut the plants or find tankers and purchase water," recalled Bhupinder Singh, CEO and Managing Director of Vista Processed Foods. Operating without water, he explained, was not an option. Water in food production is critical, particularly for sanitation, which requires equipment to be regularly and meticulously cleaned.
The challenge forced Singh to consider how to reduce water usage without compromising on standards and, ideally, without having to purchase water or shut down operations. "We see water conservation as critical to our sustainability," said Singh.
OSI Group similarly sees conservation of water and other key resources as fundamental to our business success and commitments to our customers, our people and the diverse areas of the world in which we operate. We recognize that water is one of the planet's most valuable resources and have set ambitious goals to reduce our water usage globally by 15% in the next five years. But, like Singh, we are working through challenges to steward water more responsibly — and encouraging our suppliers to do the same — without compromising our rigorous food safety and quality standards.
The story of how Vista expanded amid some of the more challenging water and climate conditions OSI Group companies have faced is an inspiration to us and a lesson we are working to apply across our company.
Raising Water Conservation Awareness
Due to the challenges of Vista's location, Vista leadership and management have always been meticulous about tracking water usage at the plant level and increasing awareness about conservation on the shop floor. Wherever the data show opportunities for improvement, managers implement changes, like introducing more water recirculation and purchasing equipment that is more efficient.
The data-driven approach to water conservation continues to guide operations at Vista's three plants today. Last year, Vista's Sirhind plant, which processes vegetables in Punjab, introduced a new cleaning system that reduced water consumption by 15%. The “smart” cleaner replaced an older system that required workers to manually dilute soap when cleaning two of the plant’s machines — a breader and a batter coating machine. Used in conjunction with newly installed high-pressure jets, the system resulted in the 15% reduction in water consumption and a 23% reduction in soap over the course of 2019. The station also proved to clean the machines more effectively: microbial-count also went down once the new cleaning method was adopted.
Conserving Water at the Farm Level
Like all OSI businesses, Vista Processed Foods also looks beyond its walls to scale environmental and business solutions. Water conservation is not only an imperative for factories — it is a crucial consideration for agricultural suppliers, too.
Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawal, according to the United Nations. As a leading food production company that sources from diverse farms around the world, OSI Group and its businesses are in a prime position to influence conservation practices at the farm level, which is something Vista has also done for years.
As with its efforts to curb water use in its plants, Vista's farm-level water conservation efforts were similarly spurred by challenge. Rising temperatures are a concern for farmers around the world, but have impacted some areas harder than others. India's few temperate regions, which grow iceberg lettuce and other vegetables that Vista sources, have struggled in the last decade with the effects of climate change. Rain patterns have changed and temperatures have soared, causing a range of challenges: insect problems, inconsistent quality of produce and the need to use more water for irrigation.
Understanding the long-term environmental and business implications of these problems, in the last few years, Vista has been engaging more deeply with its suppliers around water conservation. The business dispatched agricultural experts to farms to educate these suppliers about technology and techniques that could help them minimize their water use and increase the quality of their crops.
At first, farmers were hesitant to adopt the best practices that Vista experts were advocating, including drip irrigation, which focuses low-pressure water to the crops' roots, and diversifying the areas used for farming.
"Farmers are always hesitant about [decisions made in] corporate offices," Singh said. They wonder: "Do they have real experience? Are they the sons of soil?" But slowly the farmers changed their minds, once they met Vista's own "sons of soil" — the company's agricultural experts who would demonstrate techniques for them, bring them to agricultural fairs and make the business case for sustainable practices.
While some farmers may not be interested in the technicalities of drip irrigation or other techniques, "they understand how much money they save, and the benefit of better, more uniform crops," said Dr. Bhoopendra Kumar Singh, Vista's Business Head of Fresh Produce, who is involved in supplier support and education.
A few farmers pioneered the techniques, inspiring other local farmers who inevitably noticed their neighbors' increased quality and yield. The government sweetened the deal in 2015, by offering subsidies for farmers who implement drip irrigation (also known as micro irrigation). Today, more than 60% of Vista’s 725 supplying farms use drip or micro-irrigation. Farmers who have implemented the best practice have saved money and produced higher quality and more consistent produce for Vista — something everyone can feel good about.